When we came up with the Circumstances system in Becoming Heroes, I’d thought we’d hit upon a really awesome mechanic that allows for fantastic moments of awesome. And I still do. But that observation has been tempered in a number of ways in the last year, and it deserves reconsideration.
Let me fill in some blank areas. I’m male, I’m white, I’m reasonably well educated, I have a good job. I am, sort of, the canonical example of privilege. I may have mentioned elsewhere that it occupies a lot of my mind. I bring this up because during last year’s Gen Con, and recently via Twitter, I have seen people in positions of less privilege identify loss of character authority as a sore spot.
Becoming Heroes is certainly not novel for having such mechanics. There’s Dungeon World’s bonds (and Apocalypse World’s Hx). There’s Leverage’s distinctions. Arguably the entire play experience from Penny for My Thoughts qualifies. Distributing authorship for individual characters across the group is a pretty hipsterindie thing to do. And it definitely works to bring about engaging, attention-driving play.
But here’s the thing. Those mechanics have a quiet drawback—people whose voices are routinely silenced or diminished can end up silenced in game. Yes, Circumstances are meant to give the villain an emotional impact—to allow the GM to give mechanical weight to the disheartened feeling a hero might get for not saving her village, and to simultaneously allow the hero to build up a whole basket full of advantages from accomplishing various deeds on her quests. But when some asshat puts “Neurotic Bimbo” on your sheet, what do you do?
Mind, if someone tried to do that at a game I was running, I would veto it. I realize, though, you don’t always pick your group. Sometimes you’re at a con game. Sometimes there’s only five people that show up regularly, and they’re kind of jerks. I’ve kind of given up on playing with jerks—but then again, this is another way in which I’m privileged: I have a group of really smart, thoughtful, clever, kind people who I trust and know well that I’ve lucked into. I wish I could distill how that happened into something repeatable, because gaming with jerks sucks.
Trust is fundamentally the issue here. Mechanics which distribute character authorship create vulnerability in the players. Sure, that vulnerable space has its advantages. It allows you to explore all sorts of emotions, to be genuinely surprised at what happens during play, to create exactly the kinds of change you want. But it’s still vulnerability.
I think the antidote is to be among people you trust with that vulnerability, which is easier said than done. Some times that trust can be worked out in real time—I like to negotiate at the table over what’s appropriate when someone is going to put a Circumstance on another player. And rather than create something that’s half-hearted, I ask the other people at the table what to create. Diffusing the responsibility tends to create safety. Also, wiser people than I have pointed out the value in negotiating limits in advance.
As for GMing, it’s important to set good examples and step in when someone pushes a boundary. And I try not to underestimate the value of backing up people who express discomfort at an idea. When someone points out something that’s setting them on edge, I thank them for speaking up. It’s far better to have a good game than to hold onto what seemed like a clever idea.
But I hope it doesn’t seem like I think I have all the answers, because I really don’t. These are just examples of my own attempts to create a safe space for people to be awesome in. I do believe that there’s a concern here with these mechanics and I want to make sure future games I help write acknowledge those concerns in the text. I’d love to hear your strategies or experiences with mechanics of this kind in the comments; I’m always looking for more ways to improve.